April 2015

Show Notes – The Blue Lotus

by David Dedrick on April 29, 2015

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When I started putting together this edition of the show notes, I thought there wouldn’t be much to say about The Blue Lotus. Hergé actually changed the book very little during its updating to colour in 1946. It had a special place it had in his life, but it is also a watershed moment in his career as a cartoonist – the point that he became the Hergé we know. Much to my surprise though, there is actually a lot to say about the little changes, the big changes and the no changes!

When Hergé began planning The Blue Lotus, the intervention of Christian missionaries who had actually spent time in China gave him the opportunity to research and prepare the story more carefully than he had ever done before. Most importantly, as part of this research, Hergé was introduced to Chang Chong-chen, a Chinese student and fellow artist who had firsthand knowledge of life in China.

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Chang Chong-Chen

Hergé gave himself an unusually long break between the completion of Cigars of the Pharaoh and the start of The Blue Lotus to prepare material for the book and work out a more detailed plot. Before, as when he finished Tintin in America on October 20, 1932, he quickly jumped into Cigars on December 8th – just a little over a month between books; however, The Blue Lotus didn’t appear until August 9, 1934, seven months after he had completed Cigars. This break gave Hergé time to explore China through Chang’s experiences and to draw on his wealth of knowledge not just of Chinese history, but Chinese philosophy, art and calligraphy. If Hergé was drawn to the subject matter as a way to expose Japan’s role in the Mukden Incident of 1931, it was Chang who gave him the real story of Japanese imperialism in China.

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Hergé, Germaine and Chang

Chang was also invaluable to Hergé’s artistic development. He gave Hergé Chinese brushes as a gift and taught him brush techniques and Chinese calligraphy. These lessons seeped into Hergé’s own style and we see in The Blue Lotus the first steps in the development of his “clear line” style. As he began to pare away his linework to its essence, we could say that the lessons in Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy also found their way into his art. Together, they drew Shanghai street and market scenes – Chang providing the authenticity – and worked on drawing faces, trying to find the most economical way to show the difference between Chinese and Japanese facial characteristics.

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Unlike his earlier, cruder black and white books, with so much time to prepare the plot and the giant strides forward he was taking as a cartoonist, Hergé actually had little reason to redraw The Blue Lotus. He did choose to redraw the first four pages, but probably did that reflexively, thinking that, as before, he would have to make so many corrections that it would be easier to redraw it, rather than spend the time needed to resize the original panels and rearrange the pages to suit the new 62-page album grid. If you look at the black and white version of the fakir’s tricks, it is remarkably similar to the colour version.

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After four pages, Hergé probably wondered why he was bothering to do redraw perfectly good pages and let it drop – making small changes here and there. We can see from this sequence that the only changes were the transformation from the narrower black and white three tier grid to the wider four tier grid of the colour versions.

If we compare this two page black and white spread of the Thompsons meeting with the Chinese chief of police, we can see how little Hergé changed during the transformation from black and white to colour.

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One of the bigger changes Hergé made to the story was having the toughs who come to beat up Tintin in jail changed from a group of squaddies to three Sikh police officers. (I had read that the original characters were Scotsmen, but, unless they are wearing some sort of Highland regimental uniform, I don’t see it.)

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The use of the Sikh police officers is absolutely true to how British colonial administrations worked – not necessarily the corruption, but the presence of Sikhs in the colonial British military and police forces was ubiquitous during this period. In some ways, it’s more accurate to have police officers, who would be on hand at the station, to administer the beating rather then a group of soldiers, who would have to be called in – bringing attention to the brutality. This sequence shows the efficiency of the four tier grid adopted by Hergé for the colour albums. Tons more information could be conveyed in that format than in the old black and white format. (Admitttedly necessity is the mother of invention as Hergé had to make it work within the 62 page limit.) The two sequences show the growth of Hergé as a cartoonist. In the original, we see Dawson goading the soldier into beating up Tintin, then we cut to Tintin looking forlorn in his cell and then an immediate cut to the him hearing the keys in the lock. (By the way, that is the most brilliant way to indicate him hearing the sound of the keys.) What’s better in the 1946 colour version is that after Dawson and Wilson speak, we see Tintin looking forlorn in his cell, then we cut to Dawson goading the Sikh police officers. What this does is give a sense of time passing with no indication of how long Tintin has been sitting in his jail cell. With the three panel sequence of Dawson talking to the policemen (the three burly policemen is better than the one burly soldier too); Tintin hearing the keys in the lock; and then the three big men entering the cell. You feel that little time passed between Dawson’s goading and their entering the cell. The sequence ends with the portentous “clac” of the door – sealing Tintin’s doom. I mean, what is he gonna do against those three big guys???

Some changes were simply aesthetic: fpr example, the wonderful panel of Thompson and Thomson walking through Hukow in their Mandarin get ups was… I don’t want to say “simply drawn” because Hergé drew all those people and that’s no walk in the park, but let’s say unadorned. When he and Edgar P. Jacobs were working on the colour version, they added more background detail into the drawings. You can also see the added detail in the sequence in Maharajah’s palace. The colour version is much more ornate.

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(Speaking of Jacobs, apparently he was obsessively precise and spent weeks trying to find a suitable Chinese-coloured red. He finally hit on just the right shade of red only to have the printers at Casterman mess it up anyway.)

Another big change was the cover of the book for the new 62 page colour albums. The original cover image was a red dragon against a black background with gold highlights. At Casterman’s insistence, Hergé had to reverse the colours and have a black dragon against a red background.

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The original cover image.

(I guess Casterman really wanted to rub that whole red thing in Jacob’s face.)

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Frankly, I think the original is better. It has an interesting three dimensional quality and there is more of a sense of foreboding. (I still don’t think it’s the greatest cover though.)

Speaking of covers, I’ve spent a lot of time (maybe too much time?) wondering why The Blue Lotus was strangely placed in the upper corner on the old Methuen/Magnet covers and not chronologically with the rest of the albums and then it occurred to me the other day. The Blue Lotus was the last book published by Methuen (in 1983!) so they probably didn’t want to mess up the nicely decorative grid and just stuck The Blue Lotus off in the corner, out of the way – forever confusing little obsessives like myself!

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Finally! That puzzle is solved! (We also talk about this in our newest episode 0f Totally Tintin “The Broken Ear”.)

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next time.

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